Now in its fifth edition, the still-young Rome Film Festival has always struggled with its identity but this year the annual cinema event has revealed itself to be in the midst of a full-fledged identity crisis. Marred by technical problems mainly related to the many digital projections, screenings that started late, were cancelled or scheduled after, rather than before the press conferences, the festival did not show itself from its best side, looking like a spotty teenager in adolescence who acts up and goes against the grain for no apparent reason. The festival’s top prize, the Marc’Aurelio Award, went to the grotesque Belgian suicide dramedy “Kill Me Please,” which is almost an accurate description of how I felt after the festival was over.
Originally conceived as a “festa del cinema,” or cinema party, for the people of Rome (who also decided on the awards), the festival has since its inception also tried to raise its profile internationally, though without catering to the needs of foreign journalists, who seemed to be largely absent this year, despite official figures from the festival that they numbered over 400 (I don’t think I’ve run into more than 40, and I’m being generous).
The city and the local film industry also seemed fed up with the way the festival’s budget (which is bigger than that of Venice) was used, with the opening night red carpet picketed by protesters asking for a halt to planned cuts in the state’s film sector budgets. The stars of the opening night film, “Last Night,” Keira Knightley, Eva Mendes and Guillaume Canet, gamely made an appearance to show solidarity with their protesting colleagues. And to keep things in balance, the last day of the festivals more protesters flooded the hollow, Renzo Piano-designed Parco della Musica, where the fest is held, this time to urge the city to spend its money on things such as proper housing, new roads and other much more urgent matters than a lavish cinema party for a select few.
This year’s competition jury judged a selection of films that were unusually weak this year, with few standout titles and even fewer major world or international premieres, giving at least this journalist a distinct sense of deja vu. One of the major trends present in many of the films was the cutting between different stories happening at the same time, but very few filmmakers seemed to know how to tie these different strands together thematically.
Iranian film “Dog Sweat,” by Hossein Keshavarz looks at the “real” Iran, where blueprints of people are stuck in intersecting stories and struggle with things such as arranged marriages, sex before marriage, homosexuality, marriage infidelity and religious and societal oppression. Set in Tehran and shot there clandestinely before the 2009 elections, this mosaic of mini-narratives fails to develop beyond its simple template format, with none of the stories having enough time to acquire any poignancy, and the acting and camerawork often shoddy. However, its good intentions are never in doubt, and the film, which was earlier screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival, was awarded the Special Plaque of the President of the Italian Republic for, “The film which best emphasizes human and social values.”
Irish entry “Five Day Shelter,” from director Ger Leonard, also looks at several interconnected stories, but faces the opposite problem: instead of keeping the camera too close to its subjects, its mise-en-scene and editing feel designed to keep all protagonists at an arm’s length. Rigidly composed and with a slowly droning score, the stories, mainly set in the lower classes, fail to elicit much compassion for the plight of the prostitutes, drug dealers or single moms that populate them. It premiered at the Belfast Film Festival.
More in command of her storytelling is laurelled Danish director Susanne Bier (“Brothers,” “Things We Lost in the Fire”), whose “In A Better World” was one of the few high-profile films in competition. Cross-cutting between the family of a bullied boy whose parents are good human beings stuck in an ugly divorce, and one of the boy’s classmates who has recently lost his mother and who thinks the bullies should get their just deserts, Bier doesn’t quite reach the heights of her best work but nonetheless offers interesting food for thought and in a thoroughly cinematic way. The key to the drama, which premiered in Toronto, is in the original Danish title, which simply means “Revenge.” It was awarded the Grand Jury Award in Rome.
Young director Jim Loach (son of kitchen-sink maestro Ken Loach) cuts between one story but on two continents in his feature debut “Oranges and Sunshine,” in which Emily Watson gives another understated but beautifully modulated performance. Watson plays a British social worker in 1986 who uncovers a government-supported scheme of deportation that was in place between the 1940s and the 1970s for children of “unfit” (as in not married) mothers, whose children were sent to the country of oranges and sunshine, Australia. The true story is interesting enough, and Loach and screenwriter Rona Munro (Loach Sr.’s “Ladybird Ladybird”) thankfully refrains from flashbacks to the children’s past, only showing Watson’s character talking to the scarred adults that have to try to come to terms with the abuse and lies they suffered (often they were told their mothers were dead). Hugo Weaving and especially David Wenham impress as two of these grown up “lost children,” though Loach struggles to translate these harrowing true stories into something truly cinematic. The film premiered in Pusan.
German director Chris Kraus delivered one of the most interesting titles in competition with “The Poll Diaries,” another Toronto holdover and also inspired by true events. The story of a young girl facing the end of an era (in this case the era of the German-speaking Barons in the what is now Estonia, on the eve of WWI), is beautifully conceived and strongly acted, especially by teenage newcomer Paula Beer, who plays the protagonist Oda Shaefer, who would, later in life, goes on to become a celebrated German poet. The film won a Special Jury Award.
The Best Actor award went to Toni Servillo (“Il Divo”) for his role as a Neapolitan man who has tried to build up a new life in Germany in “A Quiet Life,” a film from director Claudio Cupellini that is a taut and impressively acted piece that peaks much too early as it slowly starts to dawn on the audience that his previous life is starting to catch up with the man who now runs a picturesque Italian restaurant with his new German wife and young son. The film’s similarities to “The Consequences of Love,” which also starred Servillo, make it hard for the film to properly stand on its own, and much of the goodwill accumulated during the early going evaporates during the final scenes that are perhaps logical but without any real interest.
The film that walked away with the Marc’Aurelio Award for best film was, somewhat shockingly, one of the worst films in the festival: “Kill Me Please.” The black-and-white wannabe farce from French-speaking Belgium is the directorial debut of Olias Barco. It focuses on a “suicide hospital” led by Aurelien Recoing (most famous for his role in Laurent Cantet’s “Time Out”), and the assorted idiots that check in to have their last wish, well, executed. The film feels completely improvised on the spot, has no narrative logic and offers only scant laughs, making one wonder what the point of the endeavor was. The jury must have liked the fact that it is a politically very incorrect film, but there is nothing here that wasn’t already present, and often executed in a much better way, like “Man Bites Dog” (1992), a comparison that, beyond its choice of black-and-white and country of origin, is further reinforced by using some of the same actors, including Belgium’s most famous happy/sad clown, Benoit Poelvoorde.
The Out of Competition grab bag held a few more interesting titles though all seen at previous festivals, reinforcing the idea that the fest is an ideal launchpad for Italian distributors trying to create buzz in their home market, but is less interesting from an international point of view. Titles included David Michod’s hard-hitting Australian drama “Animal Kingdom,” the well-acted and mounted tale of female empowerment from “Calendar Girls” director Nigel Cole, “Made in Dagenham” (too long, like all his films), the U.S. version of “Let Me In,” based on the Swedish kid vampire hit, the latest films of Frenchmen Eric Lartigau (“The Big Picture”), Guillaume Canet (“Little White Lies”) and the late Alain Corneau (“Love Crime”) and John Cameron Mitchel’s Nicole Kidman-starrer, “Rabbit Hole.”
As usual, some of the more interesting titles could be found in the sidebars, and though the Extra section yielded more walkouts than cinematic treasures this year – the documentaries especially were weak – some of the titles in the Alice in the City section, aimed at children and young teens, were interesting, notably the eventual winner, “Oxygen” – coincidentally also from Belgium, though the Dutch-speaking side. The film, about a 17-year-old boy with cystic fibrosis who practically lives in hospitals and tries to come to terms with the fact he has a disease that will one day be fatal, is an observant portrait of coming of age under very special circumstances. It earlier won the Grand Prize at the Montreal Film Festival.
All in all, attending the festival as a foreign journalist like myself was a frustrating experience. Firstly, there is a distinct lack of respect for non-Italian speaking journalists, with exactly zero of the security people or festival volunteers ever explaining anything in English whenever screenings ran late, where changed or cancelled. Then there were the numerous technical problems: I sat through one film that constantly freeze-framed while the audio continued, at another screening they showed the wrong film entirely, during a gala screening a digitally projected film was halted and the lights came up halfway through and the two digital copies of Assayas’ “Carlos” at the festival were both defective, with screenings having to be rescheduled. All this caused constant delays, making it impossible for a journalist to properly plan a day full of screenings and interviews – if you succeeded in getting interviews from the press office, which had a sign on the door saying, “Do Not Enter” in Italian only, with the only English-language sign saying a threatening “beatings to occur around the clock” (I am not making this up).
Perhaps, all this could have perhaps been compensated by the presence of good new movies, a couple of gems from out of nowhere. But this was far from the case this year, and the lineup of artistic director Piera Detassis was not only weak but also lacked any clear vision. This is surprising, since it should not be such a hard thing to impose, considering that the festival has no problems in programming things that have played elsewhere; the fest’s closing night film, “The Kids Are All Right,” premiered in Sundance and was also in Competition in Berlin, some ten months ago.
Clearly, Rome has some thinking to do before next year’s edition, and I would humbly advise them to make it a festival for the Italian public only, as originally intended. On the international festival circuit, this year’s edition was far below par.
The full list of awards from the 2010 Rome Film Festival:
Marc’Aurelio Jury Award for Best Film: “Kill Me Please” by Olias Barco
Marc’Aurelio Grand Jury Award: “In a Better World” by Susanne Bier
Marc’Aurelio Special Jury Award: “The Poll Diaries” by Chris Kraus
Marc’Aurelio Jury Award for Best Actor: Toni Servillo for “A Quiet Life”
Marc’Aurelio Jury Award for Best Actress: the entire female cast of “Las Buenas hierbas”
Special Plaque of the President of the Italian Republic for the film which best emphasizes human and social values: “Dog Sweat” by Hossein Keshavarz
Marc’Aurelio Audience Award for Best Film – BNL: “In a Better World” by Susanne Bier
Marc’Aurelio Award for Best Documentary in the Extra section: “The Rainmakers” by Floris-Jan Van Luyn
Marc’Aurelio Award for Emerging New Talents: Kaspar Munk for “Hold Me Tight”
Marc’Aurelio Alice in the City Under 12 Award: “I Want To Be a Soldier” by Christian Molina
Marc’Aurelio Alice in the City Over 12 Award: “Oxygen” by Hans Van Nuffel
Marc’Aurelio Acting Award: Julianne Moore.